ISTANBUL — Hundreds of thousands of Iranians held rallies across the country Friday to mark the anniversary of the Islamic revolution, as the main march in Tehran added a new twist: displaying placards praising Americans who protested President Trump’s entry ban.
The annual rallies traditionally feature anti-U.S. chants and burning of the American flag. But this year’s gathering paid notice to the deep U.S. political divides over Trump’s executive order to bar entry from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran.
Friday’s march included signs championing the Americans who protested Trump’s plan, which is now suspended by U.S. federal judges.
“Americans are welcome and invited to visit Iran,” another sign at the rallies read.
Addressing crowds in Tehran, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the demonstrations were a message to the White House that Iran will not bow to any threats.
The marchers “are telling the world” to “speak to the Iranian nation with respect,” Rouhani said, according to the semiofficial Fars News Agency. Anyone confronting Iran will “regret” their aggressive policies, added Rouhani, a moderate who was elected president in 2013 and who supported the 2015 nuclear deal with the United States and five other world powers.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had called on Iranians earlier this week to use the anniversary of the revolution, which overthrew the U.S.-backed shah in 1979, as an opportunity to “respond” to the Trump administration’s forceful rhetoric.
Last week, Trump said Iran is “playing with fire” by testing ballistic missiles. Iran says the launches do not violate U.N. resolutions because the missiles are not designed to carry nuclear warheads, but the White House viewed a recent launch as a belligerent act.
The Trump administration announced new sanctions against Iran last week, and officials are considering a proposal to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, the country’s most powerful security institution, as a terrorist group.
The designation would have far-reaching implications and could result in retaliation against U.S. troops fighting the Islamic State in Iraq, where the Revolutionary Guard supports Shiite militias battling the extremists.
Iranian officials have called the U.S. moves “provocative,” and Khamenei urged Iranians to “show their stance against such threats” by turning out to celebrate the anniversary of the revolution Friday.
Images broadcast on Iran’s state television showed throngs of people holding signs and marching in the streets of central Tehran.
High-profile figures such as Qasem Soleimani, a commander in the Revolutionary Guard, and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif were also at the rallies, according to photos published by Iranian news agencies. Elsewhere, demonstrators trampled on printed American flags and photos of former U.S. presidents, the Associated Press reported.
The current friction between the United States and Iran is in contrast to the easing of tensions that took place under the Obama administration, which concluded a nuclear deal with Iran and maintained an open channel of communication with its government.
The multilateral deal aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear development lifted some of the international sanctions that had halted economic growth.
The U.N. Security Council resolution that endorsed the 2015 deal called on Iran to refrain from testing ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear warheads. Late last month, Iran tested a missile that the United States says defied the resolution. Then, a week ago, the Revolutionary Guard carried out extensive military exercises in the desert, calling the maneuvers a response to Trump’s sanctions.
The new administration’s plans for Iran are still unclear, said Gary Sick, who served on the National Security Council under Presidents Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. He is now a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Middle East Institute.
But “they're hitting quite strongly, and prepared to go much further,” said Sick, who was also the principal White House aide on Iran during the revolution.
“I don’t think we can predict how Iran will respond to it,” he said. “Other than that they won’t be intimidated by it. They’re not going to do that.”